Slatkin and the SSO are Fantastique

A few weeks back I compared the Seattle Symphony of present to the San Francisco Symphony, just before Michael Tilson Thomas took over. I mused, there are orchestras and then there are orchestras, and the San Francisco Symphony is the later.

This weekend the Seattle Symphony joined the ranks of the San Francisco Symphony and even other big-league American orchestras, with scintillating, well played performances under the director of Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin is in the first year of a three to five year contract with the Detroit Symphony. After a rocky exit with the National Symphony, he has found his bearings with the DSO, an orchestra needing the attention of a music director who is an orchestra resucitator and musician.

The inspired, nuanced, and mostly clean playing of the orchestra amplified the possibilities and the dilemmas for the SSO in the post-Schwarz era. The Seattle Symphony is poised to enter a new era of artistic growth and enhanced performance standards provided the board of directors hires the right music director to replace Schwarz. Make the wrong choice, miss an opportunity to snag a big talent, or allow orchestra politics to intervene and the results could be unpredictable.  Philadelphia is facing this scenario right now and the future doesn’t look bright.

Leonard Slatkin, possibly the most well-known, active American conductor, was in town leading the Emerald City’s orchestra in four concerts and also taking the podium to guide the Seattle Youth Symphony in a repeat performance of the Symphonie Fantastique, a piece the youth symphony played only a few weeks earlier.

Slatkin put together a solid program. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with Julian Rachlin anchored the first half. On the other side of intermission, Berlioz’s groundbreaking Symphonie Fantastique occupied the remaining hour. I have to confess, I love Britten’s Interludes, especially the Storm, but I was disappointed a new work by Jefferson Friedman was shelved for budget reasons. There were too many extra musicians required and not enough money apparently to make the piece work. Friedman is a promising, young composer Slatkin has championed and I think Seattle would have taken to his unique, invigorating style.

What made the concert I heard on Saturday night exceptional, was Slatkin’s attention to detail and his ability to elicit articulated, multifaceted playing  from every section of the orchestra. Finesse and passion coexisted across the program, but especially in the Symphonie. A common observation among people who have followed the orchestra for a long time is the band’s tendency to play very loudly – even when it isn’t necessary to shake the rafters of Benaroya Hall. Also common, are missed entrances and occasional erratic section playing. We heard this the previous week when sections struggled to play as a unit.

On both matters, Slatkin broke these SSO habits. Like a good team leader, he kept each section in check, made it easy for the orchestra to follow the beat, and generally worked with the orchestra as opposed to against it. He also pushed and pulled the dynamics in ways that demonstrated how good this orchestra could be. I never knew the SSO strings could play so softly.

It undoubtedly helped that he knows the Symphonie Fantastique well enough to conduct it without a score. And, Slatkin knew exactly what he wanted the orchestra to do.

The orchestra happily obliged. The final movement, was menacing even though it felt a little restrained. The violins skittered, the brass moaned, and the church bells rang convincingly off stage with the help of a sampler. The four movements that came before were just as well done. Stefan Farkas ruled the third movement. His English Horn solos were a highlight for me. The march to the scaffold was noble and smoothed out in parts to blunt its edginess

I hope Slatkin comes back to Seattle real soon. He won’t be here next season, but Thomas Philion and Elena Dubinets should do everything in their power to snag him for a stint in 2010/2011. He is the real deal. He is both a musician and an administrator. In his Saturday post concert talk with a large, enthusiastic crowd, he was engaging and comfortable interacting with everyone. He understands a music director needs to do more than just make great music with an orchestra.  He needs to be an educator, fundraiser, politician, and have an artistic vision. Fortunately, he can do all of these things. Detroit is lucky to have him.  The DSO is an orchestra with tremendous potential but burdened by a state with 20% unemployment, a crumbling auto industry, and a certain amount of uncertainty in the post-Jarvi years.

Seattle would be lucky to have him too. Who knows, maybe if enough boosters get together they can lure him from Detroit in 2011, after he finishes his three year contract. I am sure someone, somewhere in Seattle is dreaming about a Slatkin tenure with the SSO (even if it is for just three to five years). With a little bit of luck and if the search committee is bold enough, maybe we could snag him.

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